‘Look for skills, not credentials’: Beth Cobert on tapping into US talent

The former US chief performance officer, now a leader at the Markle Foundation, wants to revolutionize how companies and workers approach capability building.

As one of only a few individuals ever to have held the title of chief performance officer of the United States, Beth Cobert knows all too well that the performance of an organization—or a country, for that matter—depends heavily on the skills and capabilities of its people. Today, finding and advancing solutions to build the skills of American workers is her primary focus.

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Cobert is chief operating officer of the Markle Foundation and CEO of Skillful, a Markle Foundation initiative. She helps lead the Rework America Alliance, a national collaboration of organizations working to open up high-quality employment opportunities for millions of unemployed and low-wage workers—particularly people of color, who have been disproportionately affected by the current economic crisis.

In this interview with McKinsey’s Daniel Pacthod and Michael Park, Cobert shares her views on how organizations and individuals can develop the skills required to thrive in a fast-changing, increasingly digital economy. The following are edited excerpts of the conversation.

McKinsey: Capability building has been a passion of yours for years—starting from your time in the private sector, then in your role in government, and now as a leader in the nonprofit world. Tell us about the work you’re doing at Markle.

Beth Cobert: At Markle, we are focused on helping the 70 percent of the American workforce who don’t have bachelor’s degrees get good jobs in our changing economy. We believe that these individuals have immense talents and capabilities, and we’re working to find ways for them to be recognized for those skills, to bring them to employers, and to be able to have high-quality jobs that can sustain them and their families.

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How Markle is helping America’s low-wage workers

During the past year, there’s been an even greater need to focus on connecting these individuals to good jobs, since the pandemic’s economic impact has been so disproportionately felt by low-wage workers, communities of color, and individuals with less educational attainment. I’m hopeful that over the next five to ten years, we will build a movement that enables more diverse individuals to be recognized for the skills they can build and not simply the credentials that they might be fortunate enough to possess.

McKinsey: What should companies do differently to benefit from this diverse talent?

Beth Cobert: The first thing employers should do is to really think about the skills that are relevant for a job. They should look for skills, not credentials. They should write job descriptions that are focused on skills, as opposed to simply repeating what they’ve asked for in the past. For many jobs, there are requirements listed in the job description that no one in the company has really thought about. So it starts with being clear about what you’re looking for.

I’ll give you an example. There’s a company here in Colorado—a precision-lens manufacturer—that has discovered, through working with the Markle Foundation’s Skillful initiative, that the critical skills it needs include manual dexterity and a focus on detail. And one of the best places to find that talent is in nail manicurists or in people who work in food service, like sushi chefs. Companies must open their aperture so that they can bring in a more diverse workforce and give opportunities to individuals who have been locked out of those opportunities in the past.

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Recognizing an individual’s skills: A case example

A second thing companies should do is to look at their existing workforce and ask themselves, “Who has the capabilities our company needs, and how can we help those individuals advance? How can we give our people the experiences and training that will allow them to grow and contribute in ever-greater ways?”

Third, I’d say the most important thing for companies to do is to just get started. Many companies are making public statements today about wanting to build a more diverse workforce, but how do you move from intent to action? There’s no better way than to just get started: choose a few roles in your company, do a few pilots, and use that experience to learn—as opposed to trying to design the perfect system.

McKinsey: Technology is obviously changing the way we all work and learn. That was true even before the pandemic, although of course in the past year all in-person capability-building programs have had to go virtual. Looking ahead to the next decade or so, in what ways do you think technology will improve capability building?

Beth Cobert: I think there’s a huge opportunity for technology to make capability building more versatile, more modular, and more relevant to an individual. Let me talk a bit about all three of those.

Technology can help make programs more versatile: capability-building programs can be delivered in different formats to different people in different time zones. They can also be more modular and bite-size, so that people can fit capability building into their lives. This is particularly important for frontline workers, who must balance capability building—whether done on their own or through a company—with their very real need to sustain earnings.

And programs can be more tailored to each individual. Technology can change the relative rigidity of how we think about capability building. Right now, everybody sort of goes lockstep through programs, whether they’re relevant to the person or not. But if you can understand, using insights from data, what skills an individual has already built and what skills that person will need in order to get a better job, you can more easily customize that person’s capability-building program so that they can focus their time on the skills that are truly going to make a difference in their career. For example, a retail worker with great experience in customer service may have already gotten really good at Excel by doing volunteer work in a local organization. But for them to move to a better job, they might need more skills in, say, data analysis. So their program should focus on data analysis, not Excel.

McKinsey: Personalization will indeed make a big difference. But are there certain skills that every individual will need in the next ten years? In other words, what skills will employers look for in almost every employee?

Beth Cobert: It’s clear that for virtually every job in the world, or at least in America, basic digital literacy will be an absolute requirement—whether you’re a home-health aide communicating the status of the person for whom you’re providing care, or whether you’re in facilities management and your employer is sending you, via a mobile device, a task list of repairs. Even today, eight in ten jobs for individuals who don’t have a bachelor’s degree require a basic level of digital literacy. We’re not talking about coding skills; we’re talking about “using technology” skills—knowing how to operate a smartphone or a computer, and how to use basic productivity tools for office work. As we go forward, I think that will be a requirement for virtually every job. We need to make sure that individuals have the opportunity to build those skills and that they have access to computers, phones, broadband.

Also, this past year has certainly taught us that the ability to be adaptable, to solve problems, and to learn in a swiftly changing environment will become increasingly important. We need to help people build the self-awareness, the communication skills, and the resiliency to adapt to a changing world.

McKinsey: What about for top management? What new, or newly important, skills should leaders of organizations hone if they want to be successful in the future?

Beth Cobert: The ability to listen becomes even more important for leaders in a world where there are so many different kinds of input and paths going forward. As a leader, how can you tap into insights in your organization and hear from the broad range of diverse voices? How can you create forums for that? Technology has shown us new ways to do this. It’s amazing how many more meetings you can attend when you don’t have to get on an airplane.

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The power of collaborative, learner-driven programs

The ability to deal with ambiguity is also really important, and leaders need to role-model that themselves: they need to show that they’re wrestling with real choices and that they, too, are building their own capabilities. They should think hard about how to achieve a balance between leading and setting clear direction, on the one hand, while also listening and being adaptive, on the other. And it’s particularly important that when you do change and adapt, you explain to people why you’ve done that—not just so people can understand the rationale behind the change but also so you can role-model the kind of leadership behavior that will be effective in moving an organization forward.

McKinsey: That’s interesting. Can you give an example of how your own leadership team has changed and adapted, even as you’ve been helping America’s workers build capabilities?

Beth Cobert: One of the things we’ve learned over time is that we need to connect the people we’re trying to serve with organizations in their communities that they trust. We were trying to do everything ourselves, and that just didn’t work. The scarce element is trust. If you want to help people—whether that’s helping businesses access sources of diverse talent, or helping individuals articulate their skills better in their résumés—it’s important that they trust you so that you can spend your time doing the actual work, as opposed to spending your time convincing them that they should be listening to you at all.

So we pivoted, and we started to work with organizations and communities that already have that trust. That’s how we choose our partners. In our work with the Rework America Alliance, where we’re trying to help individuals displaced by the pandemic—and knowing that many of those individuals are from communities of color—we’ve formed partnerships with the National Urban League, UnidosUS, and others. We’re helping empower and build the capabilities of their staff and we’re collaborating with them to design programs. That lesson about on-the-ground partnership has been a really valuable one.

I think partnership and collaboration across companies will also become more important. In particular, small and medium-size businesses—which are very much an engine of the economy and the source of employment for vast numbers of people—must collaborate in new and different ways. Some of that will need to be supported with policy change, but some of it will come from companies themselves sharing what they’ve learned with each other. How can they embed capability building more intensively into people’s jobs? How can they better invest in their workforce? It’s important to realize that those investments generate real returns—not just to companies, but to individuals as well.

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